The turning point in this half century is 1066. In no other year in English history were four different men recognised as king by some part of the political community and this was the last occasion on which a foreign invasion without substantial insular support toppled an English regime. Three great battles caused critical losses to the land-holding classes, then those who survived the last fight at Hastings faced dispossession. William, Duke of Normandy, presided over a cultural and social revolution: within a decade the upper echelons of society, both clerical and lay, were almost entirely foreign born; Old English had been driven out as a language of elite intercourse by French and Latin, and a wave of building, particularly of castles, new churches and monasteries, had begun to alter the landscape beyond recognition.


In the 1060s, England had for a generation been a comparatively peaceful kingdom under Edward the Confessor (1042–66). A handful of great earldoms connected local with national society; by the 1060s these were dominated by the Godwinsons, Edward’s brothers-in-law (he was married to their sister, Edith), Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine, leaving only Mercia held by Edwin, grandson to Earl Leofric. Edward was clearly failing in midwinter 1065. Westminster Abbey was hurriedly consecrated, then, “languishing from the sickness of soul”, the king died on 4 January and was buried there the next day.

The Bayeux Tapestry shows the old king, distinguished by his crown, shaggy hair and beard, as he extends his hand to his kneeling brother-in-law Harold. Edward’s Life, written soon after, suggests Edward commended “this woman [the queen] and all the kingdom to your protection”, and every version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers something similar. It seems likely, therefore, that Edward nominated Harold as his heir. In 1051/2, he had apparently promised the succession to his maternal cousin, William of Normandy, but Edward’s Norman friends had lost influence since then and William had virtually no support in England by the 1060s.

Harold had the backing of every significant political group and of the English Church, and moved rapidly, being crowned Harold II in Westminster Abbey on the same day Edward was entombed. But he was not secure. Aside from William of Normandy, one or more Scandinavian claimant could be expected, as a result of the Danish occupation of the English throne from 1016–42. Harald Hardrada of Norway had an awesome reputation and had already despatched a fleet to intervene in English politics in 1058, but his opponent, Swein of Denmark, had the better claim. Harold could also expect opposition from his brother Tostig, who in 1065 had, at Harold’s instigation, been exiled from his earldom of Northumbria after a rebellion by the Northumbrians, and replaced by Edwin of Mercia’s brother, Morcar. Harold’s marriage to Edwin and Morcar’s sister tied these two to his own candidacy at the price of excluding his brother.

1066 in context

The England that William invaded was a stable and centralised state, but regional kingships or Viking influence remained in other parts of the British Isles

England was prosperous in the 1050s, with a growing population and expanding economy, but there were serious threats. Viking armies had displaced the English King Æthelred, bringing Danish kings to England between 1016 and 1042, and only wars in Scandinavia thereafter curtailed renewed invasion. Æthelred’s son Edward was middle-aged when he came to the throne and ageing by the 1050s. His marriage to Edith, Godwine’s daughter, failed to produce an heir. The question of who should succeed was one of the most compelling political issues in Western Europe.

What sort of place was this England? It comprised arguably the most centralised state in Western Europe. The court was well-organised, with a rudimentary chancery, and the monarchy long-established and strong, supported by estate revenues, land-tax and profits from towns and industrial centres. Its coinage was regularly up-dated, with the head of the king displayed. The Church was well-respected, with senior appointments managed by the crown. The administration was capable of raising large, well-equipped armies and naval forces. There were several major cities, such as London, Winchester and York, and around 30 smaller ones. Ships operating out of harbours scattered around the coasts from York to the West Country fished extensively and traded with the Continent, while Bristol and Chester shared the smaller Irish Sea trade. The majority of the population made their living from farming. Villages were coming into existence although many areas were still characterised by dispersed settlement. Manorial churches had become far more common over the previous century. Rural society operated within the structure of the shires, each with its fortified town which provided defences and markets and acted as centres for justice, taxation and ecclesiastical organisation.

Ireland consisted of competing tribal kingships, with no urban centres, other than Viking Dublin and some Scandinavian-founded coastal sites, although there were major ecclesiastical centres, such as Armagh. Wales was divided between regional kingships, although Gruffudd ap Llywelyn (1039–63) had success in securing power in most of these, and had even constructed alliances in the English marches. Scotland had a single kingship, but regions of the north and west were under Scandinavian rule. Malcolm III (1058–93) exercised some influence in English affairs, both in terms of his relationships with a whole string of Northumbrian earls but also, following the Norman Conquest, via his marriage to Margaret, the sister of Edgar the Ætheling. Scotland, too, had virtually no urban development in this period and the kings were non-coin issuing.

On his accession Harold II was around 40, had a clutch of sons, had long been premier earl and was the only figure in England with a military reputation. He took control of the English administration, issuing coinage and sending out writs and charters. The combining of his own estates with those of the crown and Tostig’s made him far wealthier than his predecessor and there was no scope for opposition from England’s Celtic neighbours or his own aristocracy.

William makes his move Harold sent messengers to Normandy to inform William of Edward’s death. The Duke responded by claiming the throne and demanding that Harold honour his oath to support William’s succession, which according to Norman sources, Harold had made during a journey to the Continent c 1064. William then set about mobilising forces and building a fleet. Additionally he conducted a diplomatic offensive, gaining the support of the Pope and the Emperor.

By late spring Harold had gathered substantial forces and was poised to withstand invasion. Halley’s Comet appeared in late April 1066, perhaps being interpreted as indicative of great events to come. William was delayed by the sheer scale of his preparations, so it was Harold’s brother, Earl Tostig, who was the first outsider to appear. He had been at the court of Flanders and it was with a small Flemish fleet that he arrived off the Isle of Wight, recruiting men and raising supplies from his old estates, then ravaged eastwards as far as Sandwich. Harold’s departure from London with an army drove Tostig northwards, but he was again chased off by Edwin and Morcar. Tostig’s Flemish forces abandoned him and he fled northwards to Malcolm, king of the Scots and an old ally.

Harold Godwinson: a hero of the Bayeux Tapestry?

Michael Lewis asks why this exquisite account of the Normans' triumph of 1066 is so sympathetic to the vanquished English

Figure thought to be King Harold with an arrow in his eye, from the Bayeux Tapestry

Harold’s forces remained ready throughout the summer but were stood down as the campaigning season waned, on 8 September. Harald Hardrada in Norway had, however, spent the summer raising a great host. His arrival was unexpected and he led a formidable force, estimated at 300 vessels. Hardrada received Tostig’s backing. His first objective was apparently York, England’s second city. Signs are that York closed its gates and awaited Mercian aid. Edwin and Morcar deployed their army outside the city but were defeated by the Norwegians on 20 September.
York then had to surrender to Hardrada; it gave hostages and recognised him as king, and he withdrew eastwards to Stamford Bridge, to await the arrival of further hostages. On Monday 25th Harold advanced through York, reaching Stamford Bridge before news could reach Hardrada. The English army attacked and achieved complete victory. Hardrada and Tostig fell and their army was slaughtered. Stamford Bridge was one of the most decisive battles of the age, providing Harold with the kudos of a great warrior-king.

Across the Channel, William had been completing his preparations. Harold’s departure from the south coast and then the arrival of suitable winds provided the Duke with the opportunity to set sail about 26 September. His ships reached Pevensey on the 28th. The next day he moved his forces to Hastings, where he built a castle, and set about ravaging the Sussex coastal plain.

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Harold marched south at speed, at the head of a substantial army. He perhaps hoped to surprise William but his enemies learned of his proximity and marched a short way inland. On Saturday 14 October, Harold deployed his infantry along the crest of a low hill, since occupied by Battle Abbey, confronting Norman attacks up the slope. The battle was long fought and the English army was routed only late in the day, but the outcome was determined by the deaths of Harold and his brothers, leaving the English cause leaderless.

William responded to victory cautiously, marching first to Dover, which surrendered to him and was garrisoned. At London, the archbishops and surviving earls rallied behind the young Edgar the Ætheling (son of Edward the Confessor’s half-nephew Edward the Exile), the only figure with an incontestable claim by descent. Although he is not known to have been crowned, Edgar was certainly active as king. However, he failed to mobilise a field army and could not stop the Normans firing Southwark. When William crossed the Thames at Wallingford, ravaging in an arc round London, the resolve of the English leadership melted away.

With God on his side

Despite a distinct lack of enthusiasm among the English, William’s victory was viewed as so decisive an intervention by God that opposition could not be mobilised effectively. The Norman leader elected to be crowned at Westminster, where his relative, Edward the Confessor, lay buried, so reinforcing his claim. His acquisition of the crown marked a political revolution far more marked than Harold II’s. While neither could claim royal descent, Harold was the candidate accepted by pretty much the entire English political class. William was an outsider, whose victory came as leader of an army of foreign adventurers, whose lust for the rich estates of his new realm can only have alarmed the English. William must have found himself presiding over a mix of distrustful English magnates, whose language was incomprehensible to him, bishops who viewed him, however unwillingly, as God’s anointed, and his own supporters, whose claims on his patronage would fuel a transfer of lands and resources rarely equalled in English history.

Norman conquest was not limited to the old Anglo-Saxon kingdom but pushed outwards into both Wales and Scotland within a generation. Following the battle of Mynydd Carn in 1081 the earl of Chester overran much of North Wales while the Norman lords of Hereford and Gloucester pushed into central and southern Wales. Even Rhys ap Tewdwr of Deheubarth accepted the over-lordship of William and owed £40 per annum to the king at Domesday. In Scotland, Malcolm found himself similarly having to accept Norman over-lordship but it was not until his defeat and death that his sons oversaw the establishment of Norman barons in the Lowlands, including such famous names as Bruce and Balliol.

History facts: 1066

Population of England: 1.5–2 million

Percentage of people making their living predominantly from farming: 90–95 per cent

Number of people in London: c25,000

Key years: other important events in the second half of the 11th century

1051 – Godwine falls from favour. King Edward and Earl Godwine, his father-in-law (and Harold’s father), quarrelled over royal appointment of a Norman as archbishop of Canterbury and the earl’s refusal to punish the men of Dover for attacking Edward’s French brother-in-law. A meeting at Gloucester led to confrontation and a second meeting at London, on 24 September, led to the flight of the old earl and his family abroad, most of them seeking aid in Flanders while Harold left for Ireland. Edward sent his wife Edith, Godwine’s daughter, to a nunnery. Although it would be reversed the next year, the fall from power of Godwine’s family seemed complete and Edward attempted to appoint his own men to exercise power under his kingship.

1054 – Macbeth is defeated. Siward of Northumbria led an army into Scotland against Macbeth, defeating his forces and enthroning Malcolm III. Macbeth lived on for a few years but was eventually entirely overthrown. The death of Siward’s eldest son and his nephew meant that when he died in 1055 there was no adult of his lineage to succeed, enabling the Godwinesons to secure Northumbria for Tostig.

1063 – Invasion of Wales. Harold and Tostig took advantage of the youth of Mercia’s new earl, Edwin, to invade Wales and destroy the power of his ally, King Gruffudd of Gwynedd and Powys. Harold sacked Gruffudd’s halls at Rhuddlan, then in May led a fleet from Bristol against the Welsh coast, while Tostig invaded by land. The Welsh caved in and themselves killed Gruffudd in August, his ship’s figurehead and trappings were delivered as trophies to King Edward, and Wales was placed by Harold in the hands of Gruffudd’s half-brothers, who were forced to ally themselves with the victor, although they swiftly reverted to their family’s alliance with Edwin of Mercia.

1068 – William faces opposition. Opposition to King William’s regime, its taxes and his patronage of foreigners was growing and he found it necessary to besiege Exeter, where Harold’s mother was lodged. Edgar the Ætheling took refuge in Scotland, where his sister Margaret was forced into marriage by King Malcolm. William appointed Robert of Commines as earl of Northumbria but he was overwhelmed at Durham on 28 January 1069, leading to a general rising of the north.

1072 – Scotland acknowledges King William. Having suppressed the northern rising (1069–70) and a revolt in the Fens (1071), William led a large force into Scotland. Malcolm III had given support to William’s enemies and had allied himself with Edgar the Ætheling but could not withstand a full-blown Norman invasion. A meeting took place between the two kings, at which Malcolm was reported to have made his peace, given hostages, including his son Duncan, and acknowledged William’s superiority.

1086 – Scotland acknowledges King William. Having suppressed the northern rising (1069–70) and a revolt in the Fens (1071), William led a large force into Scotland. Malcolm III had given support to William’s enemies and had allied himself with Edgar the Ætheling but could not withstand a full-blown Norman invasion. A meeting took place between the two kings, at which Malcolm was reported to have made his peace, given hostages, including his son Duncan, and acknowledged William’s superiority.

1087 – William’s death. William was taken ill while on campaign in France and died at the priory of St Gervais near Rouen on 9 September. He nominated his eldest son Robert to the Duchy but it is unclear whether or not he named his second son, William Rufus, as king of England. However Rufus promptly left to secure this position and, aged about 27, he was crowned William II at Westminster later the same month.

1088 – Odo’s rebellion. Bishop Odo raised a rebellion against his nephew, William II, and was joined by major figures who favoured Robert as king. The rebellion centred on Odo’s castle of Rochester, which William besieged. The king rallied English support against his opponents and his brother’s efforts to reinforce the rebels failed. The affair ended with the departure overseas of Odo, leaving the new king in control.

1093 – The fall of Malcolm. William II set about disposing of Malcolm of Scotland, who he clearly viewed as over-mighty. Summoned to Gloucester, Malcolm was there refused admission to the king’s presence and the treaty he desired. He returned home in anger, raised an army and made a rash attack on Northumbria but was trapped and killed. Malcolm was succeeded by his brother, Donald. Eventually Malcolm’s daughter Matilda (or Maud) would marry Henry I, William I’s youngest son,in 1100, capturing the English throne for her lineage.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1141: Stephen v Matilda

Go back: 1016: The Danish conquest of England

Part three in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1100–1149

Nicholas Higham is professor of early medieval and landscape history at the University of Manchester. His books include King Arthur: Myth-making and History (Routledge, 2002), and A Frontier Landscape (Windgather, 2004)


This article was first published in the May 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine